JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli forces battled to take over a second Hizbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon on TuesdayÂ in intensifying ground clashes with the guerrillas’ frontier garrison, sources on both sides said.
Calling Bint Jbeil “one of the major Hizbollah centers”, an Israeli military spokesman said tanks and troops had sealed off the town, killed or wounded dozens of guerrillas, and were engaged in sporadic firefights with the hold-outs.
“We are operating in the town. I can’t say we are in total control of the town yet,” the spokesman said.
Hizbollah confirmed that at least two of its men had been killed but said in a statement that fighting with Israeli forces continued on Bint Jbeil’s outskirts and the surrounding area.
Sources in the foreign observer force UNIFIL said it was difficult to know which side controlled which parts of the town, and that some civilians were feared trapped amid the crossfire.
Al Jazeera television said four Israeli soldiers were wounded in Tuesday’s clashes. The army did not comment on fresh casualties, but has said two tank crewmen were killed in Bint Jbeil on Monday while several more soldiers were wounded.
Taking Bint Jbeil could be a morale-booster for Israel, which launched a Lebanese offensive after Hizbollah killed eight soldiers and abducted two others in a July 12 border raid. Some 400 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 35 Israelis have since died.
“Bint Jbeil was basically the main Hizbollah outpost, even a symbol,” Major-General Yiftach Ron-Tal told Israel Radio.
“I think this has an important impact on morale,” Ron-Tal said. “In Hizbollah’s worst dreams it never expected the Israeli Defense Forces to enter Bint Jbeil and take it over during this campaign.”
Israel lost seven army commandos last week in capturing Maroun al-Ras, a nearby Hizbollah stronghold that had served as a staging ground for attempted infiltrations of Israeli border villages and cross-border rocket launches.
According to Israeli intelligence estimates, the Hizbollah fighters are holed up in a network of tunnels and trenches around Shi’ite Muslim villages in southern Lebanon. Israel ordered civilians out of 14 of the villages over the weekend.
Ron-Tal said that, if Israeli forces assumed full control of Bint Jbeil, they would effectively split southern Lebanon — the heartland of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite guerrilla group.
But he said Israel should not consider rebuilding outposts in Bint Jbeil used during a 22-year-occupation that was ended in 2000, in part due to fatigue at Hizbollah ambushes on troops.
Located some 4 km (2.5 miles) from the Israeli border, Bint Jbeil was first conquered by Israel during a 1972 assault on Palestinian refugee guerrillas. It was retaken six years later, when Israel launched a major push against the Palestinians.
The Israeli army said its forces have killed at least 10 guerrillas in the current incursions but had no firmer figures.
“There is fierce fighting, and we are not in a position to check the pulse of each and every enemy casualty,” an army spokeswoman said.